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Key outlines $70 million in school spending in face of pandemic

by Cynthia Howell | February 14, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key has outlined plans for using almost $70 million in special federal funding to offset the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education.

Key said the "big buckets" of spending categories are mental and behavioral health, student learning gaps, teacher academies, prekindergarten curriculum, and warding off high school dropouts.

Additionally, he said money will probably be spent on improvements to the heating and air-conditioning systems at the Arkansas School for the Blind and Arkansas School for the the Deaf.

In December, federal lawmakers approved the $900 billion Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, of which Arkansas is receiving $558 million for education. It comes in addition to the $128 million that state education received earlier in 2020.

The early funding, from the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Act, must be spent by the end of this year. The latest money must be spent by the end of 2023.

The state has the discretion on spending $55.8 million, or 10%, of the new money. School districts and charter school systems will share the remaining $502 million.

Also available for state education spending is $13.378 million in federal funding to the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Program.

The first $4.6 million of the $55.8 million is being used to cover unmet covid-19 emergency leave claims from school employees in the first semester of this year, Key told the Arkansas Board of Education last week.

The state had provided $15 million in state and federal money to enable teachers to take up to 10 days of leave if they had covid-19 or had to quarantine because of exposure -- without using their traditional sick leave or losing pay if they did not have any sick days to use. Ultimately, more claims for leave were made than there was money to cover them.

The purpose of the covid-leave funding was to encourage sick employees to stay home and not spread the virus.

In this second semester, school districts are using part of their allocation of federal money to provide covid-19 sick leave for their employees.

More than half of all the special federal money from the two funding sources will be for addressing unmet student needs and learning gaps, Key said.

"One of the areas we will be looking at there is in early childhood education -- building on our partnership with Arkansas PBS that was so successful last spring and into the summer, and working with the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education for a statewide prekindergarten curriculum and supports."

The state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and PBS worked together last spring to broadcast Arkansas teachers' lessons for elementary and middle school students. That was after Gov. Asa Hutchinson closed campuses to slow the spread of covid-19.

The federal money will also be used to reinvigorate the state's efforts to train teachers in the science of how children learn to read.

"It's very important to begin another push," Key said of such training.

Additionally, there is a goal to create a network of as many as 500 certified academic language therapists to aid schools in working with students who have characteristics of dyslexia.

Still another effort in the area of meeting student needs is expanding online career and technical education courses.

Key said there are plans to use about $12 million from the state's share of the federal relief act money and $5 million from the governor's emergency education relief program money to build a statewide strategy for mental health and behavior support.

That has been an area of focus for awhile, but the pandemic has exacerbated the need, Key said.

"We are working to create supports for districts in that area," he said.

Additionally in that category will be efforts to develop greater support for school counselors.

"We are hearing from counselors about what they are dealing with in regard to student depression, anxiety and grief. The pandemic is going to have long-term effects that we really don't know at this point," Key said about the need for counselor aid.

Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner in the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, welcomed the commitment to mental and behavioral health.

She said there are initiatives with some "traction in pockets" of the state, but a statewide behavior model doesn't exist and "is super-important."

Up to $7.5 million of the money is being earmarked for "teaching academies" to increase the numbers of special education and computer science teachers, and to enhance teacher skills in online education, Key said.

As much as $5 million is being reserved for addressing the needs of students who are at risk of not graduating because they stopped attending or rarely participated in online or on-site classes during the pandemic.

Key said he anticipates drawing about $1 million to upgrade the heating and cooling systems at the state's Little Rock schools for deaf and blind students.

Not all of the federal money under state management is allocated, he said.

Some money is being reserved for unforeseen needs as the result of the pandemic and for school districts that do not qualify for very much of the traditional Title I funding and, as a result, don't qualify for very much of the special coronavirus relief funding.

"Those districts have requested consideration for additional discretionary funding to meet covid-related expenses," Key said.

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